| Diwan Special issue|

Ferid Muhić

Born in 1943 in Mahoja (B&H), lives in Skopje (Macedonia).

THE EMPEROR OF BIRDS

Mountains!

What are mountains?

Under the pressure of its own immeasurable weight, the Earth without rest or respite, evens out all its creases. It trims whatever sticks out, it knocks over and lays horizontally that which is vertical; it crumbles the walls of ravines and then shallows them, filling them up with pieces of its own skin. It joins the edges of the fissure, levels it, closes the wound. If you give it time, it will wipe away the scars.

Hundred-year-old, mighty trees, it chips, eats into them. It undercuts the footing of their roots. I lays them down. With its roller, it passes over entire jungles. They sink deep down. Over them, high above, like a tombstone, flat and smooth, a congealed wasteland.

It does not even spare firm cities. It buries the erected fortifying walls, the towers that rise high, with drifts of sand, it covers them with loose soil. Deeper and deeper it lowers them. It drags them into dark layers, closer to its heart. Trapped in the black core, crushed by everything above it, that heart wants to cram, wedge, squeeze everything that shackles it into that dark cocoon, into its own prison cell! And that same heart, overflowing with pain, wants to emerge into the light! To see the sky. To have its fill of the sky!

That’s what mountains are!

Every mountaintop, every elevation is a dome of a synagogue, a roof of a church tower, a point of a slender minaret, a bell tower and beacon, pagoda and teki. Mountains are shrines and temples that the Earth has erected to praise the Sky. Mountains are the words of the prayer that the Earth whispers, since the beginning of its existence, day and night, without rest, without deferral. Only such words, created in a heart that carries the weight of this world, can become as opulent and brilliant, as sublime and ecstatic as mountains. Only from such words, pouring out of a prayer of such a wretched heart can Mountains arise!

Of all the creatures that walk the Earth, only people have the capability to observe this truth. Among the people, only nomads can see it, for they are, if nothing else, the priests of Mountains, those great temples with which the Earth Praises the sky.

Of the creatures that fly, birds know this truth.

If Mountains are the temples through which the Earth prays to the Sky, and if nomads are the ones that transform this prayer into human words, then the birds are the creatures made from the most beautiful of human words. The birds are those words, and such words, sooner or later, grow wings, take flight, become birds! Flocks of birds that cover the ruddiness of the sky at dawn and dusk are nomad prayers sent somewhere, to somebody far away!, to convey ecstasy and elation.

But a spoken word, once, changed into a bird, it takes flight receives the gift of being able to seek on its own the ear and the soul of the one for whom it is intended. All the birds that fly, on whichever tree, rock or mountaintop they stop to rest, all of them are rushing towards one single spot. To the mountaintop of the bird of birds, the Emperor of Birds. Because only he can carry all the words and each prayer further, to the very Creator. Only he knows how to tell the story of the Earth’s heart, immured beneath the weight of this world, and of the Mountains that are the shrines, and of the people, priests of these shrines, and only he can impart what all the prayers ever spoken, all the flocks of birds that have ever taken flight or will take flight, ask of life.

And only the Emperor of Birds knows the way to the One to whom all the prayers are directed.

And so it had to happen: the birds decide to find that Mountain and its Mountaintop with the castle in which their emperor lives. And waits for the birds to bring to him all the prayers ever uttered! Prayers of birds, humans, those of beasts and the quiet ones, the silent ones whispered by the forests; and the most burdensome prayer, sent out from the direst agony and most bitter misery, without rest or respite, by the constricted dark heart of the Earth.

So, all the birds of the world meet and choose among themselves a flock. And, oh, what a flock it is! Everything that was ever winged chose among its members the best and the most beautiful. Powerful condors, light-winged albatrosses that barely touch even the water but once a month, eagles golden grey, wild geese, those tireless wondrous flyers. They fed them and fattened them up. Their feathers glistened, their eyes gleamed. Their beaks shiny from strength like golden blades. The eldest raven looked them over. He was long past three hundred. A wise raven, he knows all the birds, all the mountains, all the secrets of flying. He warned them of the dangers, instructed them, wished them good luck. He advised them how to protect themselves from the chill at heights which no other feathered creature before them had reached; and how to seek and find the castle which no other bird had ever seen. And how, once they reach the castle, they should bow to the Emperor of Birds and how they should greet him. What they should say to him, whom no single bird hatched from an egg had ever faced, to him who had, since time immemorial, commanded all the birds and decided about the fate of each bird for all eternity.

Hundreds of thousands of birds took flight with the chosen flock, so that the sky was blackened. The flapping of wings silenced the booming of mountain streams and a wind rose so strong that it tore trees from their roots. Saying farewell, while they could still keep up with its speed, they wished all the luck to the greatest flock that had ever been assembled and that had ever flown together. And the flock, each flyer better than the next, rose quickly into a mute spiral, muck like a smile at prayer that lingers and disappears, as they disappeared: so high that even the birds with the keenest sight could no longer follow them.

The flock took flight and flew away! Over all the mountains it flew. Many a new pasture it saw, many clear waters its sight reached; it sent messages to nomads with a shriek, a whistle and strong wings. Grateful, the nomads passed on the message; they left mutton on the craggy rocks for the birds to feed on and grow stronger, to catch their breath, to rest their wings, to compose their souls. When a bird broke a wing, they healed it with honey and balms. They tended to their wounds and broken wings.

The flock saw what penetrated no other pupil of any other eye before them. They saw mountaintops above the clouds hidden, ridges slender and untouched, where no single creature had set foot. The flock rested in thick grass that even chamois did not graze, let alone the nomads’ herds. They flew for a long time, too long. All heroes, all expert flyers. They remembered the Raven’s words. But no sight nor sound of the castle.

Then the inevitable began! First, one died in mid-flight. The flock fluttered, shivered. Their companion, a golden eagle, fell like a burning rock: his yellow feathers akin to flames. And later, it became frequent. One by one, they were left in some crag, unable to take flight again. Others became flaming masses of feathers, like that eagle, and plunged to their deaths. To the earth, to the ground, through which their bones will slowly sink to those dark depths, where they will deliver the message to the Earth’s heart, that they did not reach the Emperor of Birds.

The flock diminished: from fatigue, from exertion, from the hunger and the cold, from winds and gales, from hailstorms and blizzards. Those that survived kept on flying. Until they reached a massif that none of them had seen before. The local birds told them that the top is far away, in the sky, that the eye cannot reach it even on the clearest day, and that there is no pair of wings that could fly that high. The flock reposed and rested. They rose with the dawn. By now, each of them knew the wisdom and skill of flying better than any other living bird. Quickly, as if in a trance, they flew over the highest ridges, touched the show-capped peaks and then through the clouds they went until they broke the circle of eternal brightness. Above them, that terrible granite massif rose higher and higher as if it was just beginning. After many days and nights without sleep or rest, without food or water, the strongest and most healthy of the birds reached the peak: the top of the final, highest rock stuck out naked and alone, above everything and everyone. Above it, only the abysm of the sky like a chasm strewn with stars; beneath it, everything!

But upon that highest of rocks, the last rock of the world, there was nothing. No castle, nor its sublime dweller, the Emperor of Birds. Not a trace of any building or nest. Nothing. NO-THING!

And all those preparations, hopes, the wisdom of the three-hun-dred-year-old raven, and the sacrifices, and suffering and pains! And where are the word-flocks, the prayer-words truly hastening!? Which

Emperor of Birds are they appealing to, who do they expect will answer their prayers? And why do the nomads whisper the prayers, while they suffer in poverty, those ascetic priests, in the Mountains, the temples erected by the black Earth to praise the sky!? And while it utters its stifled groans, present in everything, what is the Earth waiting for, in the core, at the very bottom of its black heart where it keeps its secret prayer to endure, to send the message, to lay its prayer, even in its final cadence, even as a wheeze and a rattle, at the feet of the Emperor of Birds !?!

The birds looked at each other: the miserable remnants of a glorious squadron. There is no single bird whose every feather is not broken. And with many, broken in many places. Thin, dilapidated, but hard, harder than any word had ever been. Even such as it was, each broken feather on those birds knew and could accomplish more than that bird knew and could before it took flight! More than all the birds that had remained down below, unable to reach that invisible ear, that, empty and deaf as it is, proclaims the end.

And the birds counted themselves. And they found that thirty of them were left, thirty had arrived. Of the three thousand, three hundred, thirty-three that had started out, carrying the advice of the three-hundred-year-old raven.

That is where this story, as preserved by the nomads, ends. They only know that the birds did reach the highest peak, but that they found nothing there. No imperial castle and no emperor of birds. Some of them place this highest cog of earthly spears onto the Ala-Dag, some onto the Caucasus, others onto the Tien Shan, the Altai, the Karakorum, the Pamir and many are those that claim that the birds finally reached the peak of peaks, in the enormous area of the Himalayas, Shangri-La, Djomolungma, Sagermata. Everything else in this legend is basically the same; and what is interesting, the number of birds-words is the same. The number of those that reached that mysterious peak as a decimated and devastated, but an unconquered army, arriving in wounds and rags, with broken feathers, the way our noblest words arrive, because only they can withstand the greatest ordeals, and because the longest road is always ascribed to the noblest words in each prayer. If they have the strength to arrive. And everyone claims that the meaning of the feat is contained in that overcoming: that which overcomes, which voices itself in the final outcry, whatever it may look like, is always the most valuable and the most noble!

Some wisemen, that succumbed to the temptation to give the story a moral, (a habit that can be forgiven in the case of smaller stories, but which inevitably ruins great stories, because the power of their silence, their sovereign muteness, is always above the blabbering weakness of interpretation), ended this unparalleled epic poem in their own way. Since they rely on a linguistic correlate whose etymology tends towards central Asian, Altai and Turan roots, it is most likely that they were people incapable of the feat of survival in the mountains, but also that it is precisely from that physical weakness that they developed a clearer feeling of awe towards what their fellow tribesmen, physically more apt, did with ease. For, the greatness of things is appreciated much better by someone who only dreams of greatness than by someone who accomplishes it. That is why lives of famous husbands are always exalted far better by those in whose lives their feats are merely a subject than by those whose lives are that feat.

The accomplished satiates, because, with the completion of the deed, it fulfils itself; the un-accomplished is the root of the desire for immortality. Glory is where these two very different lives meet. And justify each other.

For those anonymous conveyors and interpreters of this story, indubitably nomads themselves, but also romantics and poets, the story in more than seventeen of its preserved variations, ends like this: ”And when the remaining birds saw that there was no castle on the mountaintop, and no living thing apart form them, they looked each other in the eyes, each looked at every other and at all the others, and then, exhausted and broken as they were, but hardened and proud, they suddenly realised that there were exactly thirty of them left. And then they said: If this is the Mountaintop of Mountaintops, and it is, and if whoever is on it is the Emperor of Birds himself, then we, the thirty of us, are that Emperor! Because in our language the Emperor of Birds is called Si Morgh, and thirty birds are also called Si Morgh.”

Some contemporary interpreters, who lack the energy to visit those magnificent mountains, have, in their offices, solemnly concluded that this etymological congruence is actually the key for the origin of the primary sounds (the 30 of them!) from which all the words were created, and of course in particular, before all else, the words of each prayer and especially the one that reaches farthest and is the last to expire! Gently, excitingly, sublimely, mystically and brightly, as befits a poetic and mystical soul. Because it always strives to elevate its understanding of the feat above the feat itself. But, caution is advised in that case for two important reasons. First, because words are never the same as the thing they denote. The examination of words is useful and significant, but it does not uncover the entity that the one using the word wants to point out. Words are, therefore, signs for something very different from themselves. And it is for that precise reason that knowledge about things should not be derived from nor reduced to their names, but instead derived from them and reduced to the things themselves.

And the second reason is based on this warning: if, in some cases, the word is only partly based on what it signifies, it must be assumed that by increasing this distance and thus decreasing the similarity between the word and what it denotes, this basis would be done away with altogether! Therefore, some words imply only other words and nothing else. It is possible that there was never any Emperor of Birds, or his Castle, or the Mountaintop of All Mountaintops. The entire story could be reduced to a didactically sober, but negative lesson: what happened in the story happens in life. Even the strongest, the most persevering, those that perform the greatest feat of their lives do not find what they desire. The feat is the act that, once completed, convinces us irrevocably of the futility of all feats!

It is also possible that the Emperor of Birds does exist. Because how else could such immense desire for something be understood, if that something never existed anywhere. In that case, the Emperor of Birds does exist, but in some other place that even the most skilled and the bravest of the flyers could not reach! According to the same perfectly plausible logic, the name of that Emperor of Birds could have a meaning that does not relate to him, it could mean something in a language that neither the nomads nor the birds are familiar with, and it could mean precisely both the Emperor of Birds and 30 birds, but only metaphorically, as an illustration of the ultimate measure that contains infinity: the Emperor of Birds is strong and skilled and worth as much as 30 birds, but the best of birds, the ones that are left over from a flock that gathered in thousands, took flight and at the end reached the point where it faced the fact that the one they were looking for is worth as much as all the birds together. And more than them, because not even the combined effort of all the birds was sufficient to reach him.

And everything could really have happened as the nomad story says. Perhaps we have the right to believe that we are one and the same as that goal for which we have invested all our strength, all our passion, all our love! And it is possible that we truly become that! You will find what you seek, if you seek it with all your strength and without doubts. Trust that the mountains will move, and the mountains will move! For whom!? It is of no matter, as long as the one convinced of that miracle is on the list. Whoever devotes his life to finding the Emperor of Birds will find him, even if only in himself is, perhaps, the message of this story, just as the one seeking the Lord will reach Him, even if only in the way that those 30 birds reached their Emperor. Our reward for seeking the greatest good and highest virtue is realising that we have found them within ourselves. That is one of the insights noted by a number of stories in the Thousand and One Nights, and reduced to minor collateral narrative damage in the Alchemist.

Still, this never happens before we have walked down our path to the end, not before we have passed through all the joys we could, and not before we have endured all the suffering that we can bear; not before we have flown over all the mountain ridges and not until we reach the Mountaintop that was before our eyes from the first step when we embarked on our journey.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that, for those who fraternise with the birds, whom the birds help find new springs and hidden pastures, and who in return feed and heal the birds (nomads never kill birds directly: even for the sporting, and even more the philosophical, act of hunting birds, they use exclusively other birds. Balkan nomads believe that it is a great sin to kill a bird!), for those who put up their sheep sackcloth tents upon the rooftops and balconies of those temples and shrines with which the Earth praises the Sky, this story does not end with a dilemma, nor with possibilities for open interpretations. And the story is, let us be reminded, theirs, of the nomads! It does not end like that, because, most probably, in its original form as they have told it, it says more to them and uncovers more important truths. Because it speaks to them of that upon which they base their chosen life.

We can doubt the mystery of the Castle where Si Morgh, the Emperor of Birds dwells, but it is possible that the ones who do not doubt it are those 30 eagles, falcons, cranes, swans, wild geese and wild ducks, the best of flyers, who know that they have reached the Mountaintop of All Mountaintops, even if it was just the mountaintop that their strength allowed them to reach! Those that have gone to the ends of their strength have reached their goal. Only there, in that spot, there is no one else apart from the one who has reached his own final limit!

The Emperor of Birds does exist. Even though the place where he dwells has not been discovered. The most important secrets of this life cannot be discovered. What can be attained in this life is not worth devoting an entire life to. For small secrets, a small part of life; the whole life only for the unattainable one! To find the thing that you have devoted your entire life to is worse than the harshest punishment! It would mean that you had underestimated your strength, that you did not aim high enough! Only the target that cannot be reached by even the best arrow you let fly is well chosen and only such an arrow is justifiably discharged!

To claim that the birds found their true Si Morgh, even that they could truly find him, is the same as to jeer at the bird within ourselves that does not lower its wings even when we rest forever, and at the human in birds, because of which they keep on flying even when so much of the immeasurable sky remains beyond their flight!

And the name of the Emperor of Birds, in the languages of the central Asian nomads, reaching from the Ala-Dag, in whose heights, according to the Yuruic legend, dwell the immortal great lovers, Halil and Jeren, over the wondrous Isik-Kl lake, to the Karakorum and the Gobi desert, wherever nomads still put up their tents, is still Si Morgh. And the same syntagm also means 30 Birds. And that is all that matters to them.

Translated by Ulvija Tanović

 

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